The Only Thing 'Uncivilised' About Ray Kelly's Talk at Brown was Inviting Him
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The Providence ( Rhode Island) community movement for global racial justice and against racial profiling began long before New York Police Department ( NYPD) commissioner Ray Kelly strode into Brown University on 29 October. And this movement – one built on human empathy, intellectual rigor, and an unequivocal opposition to politically legitimized structural oppression – will continue long after his departure.
On Tuesday, we engaged in public discourse. The discourse, however, did not occur on the terms administrators of Brown's privately endowed Taubman Center for Public Policy intended. Although coded as a neutral and therefore universal "free exchange of ideas" – as Brown President Christina Paxson would invoke in an official statement later that day – those terms were steeped in a national power structure so decentralized, so diffuse that its perpetrators can proceed as if it did not exist.
Brown University is deeply enmeshed within that structure of systemic injustice. Discourse facilitated, legitimized, and moneyed by the few in power is not true "discourse" at all. Those who asserted themselves in protest – an organized, deliberated and strategically executed protest, to be clear – exposed the falsity of these terms. As a young black woman, I am proud to be a part of this community.
In the weeks prior, the Taubman Center explicitly advertised "Proactive Policing in America's Biggest City" as a lecture by Commissioner Kelly. Last week, organizers – including both Brown students and members of the Providence grassroots organization Direct Action for Racial Equality(Dare), circulated a petition demanding that the University cancel the lecture. More than 500 professors, administrators, students, workers, activists, and Providence residents signed.
They went through the channels. They asked that the generous honorarium set aside for the talk be donated to local organizations, like Dare, working to end racial profiling. When organizers spoke with Taubman Center officials, they were told that it would not be cancelled. This is not surprising. The institutions comfortably occupying the uppermost echelons of our unequal society seem to only recognize a particular type of conversation, one in which there is only one microphone.
I sat in the crowded auditorium that day; others picketed outside. Members of community organizations, student activists, and empowered individuals listened to the director of the Taubman Center distinguish Kelly by specifically referencing the "effectiveness" of his "proactive policing policy" in New York City. He cited statistics, he read percentages, and then he introduced Kelly. He did not acknowledge the millions of people who have been dehumanized by stop-and-frisk; he did not mention the millions more across this country who have suffered the same treatment for decades under systems with no official name. Director Marion Orr and the Taubman Center blessed which realities could be presented as facts in this "debate".
I saw Kelly assume his position of power on that elevated platform. We saw this, and we got angry. As planned, the young black man in front of me stood and raised his fist in protest, and we followed suit. We read a statement, demanding accountability from the Brown institution for bringing Kelly to the university under the auspices of a "successful policing policy" and for its role in perpetuating systematic oppression. For the next 30 minutes, people in the audience stood up – some heckling, some reading prepared statements, until the talk was cancelled.
Since Tuesday, the responses to the action show unambiguously the dangerously circumscribed place of true discourse and conversation in this country. Dozens of posts on my Facebook news feed from former and current students expressed shame at a "minority" group for their "screeching", their "uncivilized behavior", and for their disregard for "freedom of speech". Intelligent individuals wielded bluntly the "civilizing" project that sanctioned centuries of oppression. The Daily Beast, among other outlets, diluted the situation to a false dichotomy of campus liberals and free speech.